Tradition and progress collide in this novel about a steelworker’s daughter trying to find her way in the world.
When Fox’s debut opens, Belle Reinker’s life is defined by the West-Penn steel mill, Squirreltown, W.V.’s major employer. Belle’s father and her husband, Mike, both work at the mill, and Belle is the secretary of the union. But when the mill refuses to renew its contract with the union and the workers go on strike, Belle knows it signals the beginning of the end for the mill. To her family’s dismay, Belle resigns from her position so she can find a new job, although Mike points out that “there ain’t any fancy jobs waiting for a woman that never finished high school.” Without telling her family, Belle takes out a second mortgage and sets up a shoeshine stand in a nearby hotel. Her business thrives, but her marriage is strained—particularly when a newspaper article about Belle’s business makes her work public, embarrassing Mike and their teenage son. As Belle expands her business, Mike negotiates with the head of the mill about a tax abatement that might keep the mill in town—at the expense of the area’s schools. When the abatement and the union’s support of it become public, the town turns into “a tinderbox of an angrily divided polity.” Belle becomes a leader of the anti–tax abatement movement, along with handsome new arrival Terry Kellerman. Belle’s professional and political transformation deepens the wedge between her and her husband, perhaps moving her into Terry’s arms. Belle’s work against the abatement is only the beginning of her advocacy for her hometown, however, and she helps Squirreltown transform through conservation, new homes and tourism. But the former head of the mill decides to run for political office so he can facilitate new development—i.e., strip malls and low-income housing—in Squirrel Valley. Can Belle stop this new enemy and preserve Squirreltown once and for all? Fox succeeds in bringing the town to life and deftly establishes the conflict between the forces that divide it. Unfortunately, the multifaceted premise is sometimes undermined by awkward writing. Even though Fox emphasizes that his characters are direct straight shooters, he sprinkles pretentious vocabulary throughout the story. Mill workers nurse their beers in “tenebrous saloons,” a planned lodge is hailed as “cynosure of the entire valley,” and the old steel mill is “fuliginous.” In most cases, simpler language would have enhanced the story.
A worthwhile, though a bit overwritten, American story about family, friendship and hard work.